Denis Mukwege – Fighting rape as a weapon of war

‘This conflict in DR Congo is a conflict caused by economic interests – and it is being waged by destroying Congolese women.’ This statement of Dr. Denis Mukwege is characteristic for the surgeon from Bukavu. Not only does he treat raped and mutilated women, he also calls politicians in his own country and abroad to account.

The international community has a new hero: Dr. Denis Mukwege. For his Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, eastern DRC, which specialises in treating victims of sexual violence in one of the most dangerous areas of the world, he received one million euro from the Dutch Postcode Lottery in January 2015. In 2014, among other things, he was awarded the Sakharov Prize by the European Parliament and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

‘Dr. Mukwege is a stark reminder of the continued horror against women today’, Linda McAvan, chair of the European Parliament’s committee for international development, said at the presentation of the Sacharov Prize to Mukwege. ‘He is an heroic advocate for the rights of women today, at great personal risk, and has raised awareness of the issue of rape as a weapon of war.’

During the Congolese war, in 1999, Mukwege built his hospital in Bukavu. That year he saw his first rape victim. ‘After being raped, bullets had been fired into her genitals and thighs’, he remembered in an interview with the BBC. Mukwege was horrified. During the months that followed a stream of women came to his hospital, all violated, all tortured. Mukwege: ‘I started to ask myself what was going on. These weren’t just violent acts of war, but part of a strategy.’

Since 1999, Mukwege has treated more than 19,000 women. He has seen the most atrocious things. Mukwege knows violated women suffer not only from their physical injuries and a psychological trauma, but they are often also stigmatised and ostracised by their family and community.

What really makes the difference in Mukwege’s approach is the combination of healing women and his never-ending efforts to let decision makers know what happens in his country. His emphasis lies on getting rape acknowledged as a weapon of war, which therefore should be treated as a war crime. The international community, however, is not doing enough in Mukwege’s eyes. Pointing to the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, in London last year, where more than 120 governments signed a ‘statement of action’: ‘I would rather have seen some real action. There should be a red line drawn, as was done with chemical weapons. The world should say: this cannot happen, and if it does, we interfere.’

By Anneke Verbraeken